Saturday, December 31

First Impressions: Goldeneye 007 Reloaded

Released in November, Goldeneye 007 Reloaded is Activision's latest Bond game despite being an updated PS3/360 version of last years Wii release which was a rehash of the mid 90's Nintendo 64 classic.

Featuring HD graphics and decent voice acting from Daniel Craig (Bond) and Judy Dench (M), Goldeneye both looks and sounds the part one would expect from a modern day Bond installment.

The action is simple with one button stealth attacks and familiar controls as you take Bond on another MI6 adventure.

The game starts in Russia as you track a general who is selling military equipment on the black market. In true Bond fashion, within 10 minutes you are taking on a small army and shooting down helicopters.

I enjoyed the small part of the game I played which seemed to be in real time. It could just be the story but I had 45 minutes to do something and after stuffing around for a while it turns out I was six minutes behind at one stage. It could just be a coincidence but if not, and sections of the game are in real time, I'm a fan of this concept.

As with the original, Goldeneye Reloaded features multiplayer gameplay with 14 maps and the ability to play as classic characters including Jaws and Oddjob. As I didn't play the multiplayer I'm not sure if the classic paintball option is available.

Goldeneye 007 Reloaded is available now on PS3 and Xbox 360.

Sunday, December 25

How Gears of War saved my life

Note: This post is in response to the Bitmob Writing Challenge - December 2011. The topic I was given by my Secret Santa reads: What game this generation have you sunk the most time in? 

2007 was a difficult year for me. With my longtime girlfriend moving to another city, a dead-end job, and my final year of university study still in hand, I was lost in the throes of alcoholism.

It may sound far-fetched, but a game helped me renew my focus and get out of that final year rut. I've played that game more than any other on this generation of hardware. That game is Gears of War.

Gears of War saw release at the end of 2006, but I didn't really get absorbed in the competitive multiplayer suite until the following year. I played through the campaign by myself and with the help of my brother, but didn't have the confidence to venture online. A lack of disposable income (eaten up by the drink and public transportation costs) soon meant that I had to squeeze the most out of every game, so ready or not, I took my fight to the world.

My first memories of the competitive space were not pleasant ones. Verbal tirades from my teammates, low scores, and abusive direct messages were my only rewards for showing some courage. I also lost my head a lot, as my opponents were often skilled with the Longshot: the game's fearsome iteration of the the sniper rifle. Whenever I saw the icon in the bottom corner of my screen that indicated that an enemy had that gun, I hid away from  its harmful payload. Still, I couldn't manage my anxiety when I was one of the few left alive, so I often emerged from my false sanctuaries to have my head taken away from me. I was a jittery mess at the best and worst of times. 

To calm my nerves, I played through the campaign again. I began to identify with the sullen, though foul-mouthed members of Delta Squad. I started exercising, and even bulked up a bit... not to Marcus Fenix proportions, mind you; but big enough to gain a little bit of confidence. Defeating General RAAM for the third time gave me the strength I needed to return to the online melee.

My regimen began to take shape: mornings consisted of study and exercise, evenings had me at work and then online upon my return. I hardly slept, but I wasn't drinking half as much as I used to. My experiences on the battlefield didn't detract from my grades either. My Grade Point Average benefitted significantly from my battle against the Locust Horde.

With the realisation that in six months I'd have two degrees under my belt, my focus became even sharper. I dropped drinking during the week, and when I had the weekend with my girlfriend, I even managed to avoid it on some weekends as well. Sometimes Carly came to visit me, and fell asleep at my side as I blasted my way up the leaderboards. She knew what it meant to me, and I never heard her complain that I spent too much time playing. That being said, I may have overdone it a little.

Those weapon-specific achievements that at first seemed unattainable started popping up during matches. I even managed to net one hundred kills with the Longshot.  Me! The guy who for the better part of the year, had no head to speak of! 2007 was starting to come around.

That's more like it!

Saving all that money from not drinking also helped me experience other great releases like Halo 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and The Orange Box. I still returned to Gears at night, however. It was my alcohol patch: it concentrated all of that negative energy and sent if flying from the barrel of my lancer.

I survived shift after shift of corrosive chemicals, apathetic customers, and worries of love and study, only to return to the fray. My wonderfully-rendered, violent sanctuary would call to me as I cleaned ovens and meat slicers. I could now see the light at the end of the tunnel, and knew that my days working in my oppressively-dull job were numbered; thanks in part to Gears.

In the last months of 2007, I finished study (once again with grades far higher than I was used to), and quit my job at the supermarket. I made plans to move in with my sweetheart. My life finally started to "happen". I still played Gears.

I may be underselling the contribution of my then-girlfriend-now-wife, but Gears of War saved me from the brink of alcohol-fueled despair. I've now been married to Carly for just over a year, and I've thoroughly enjoyed every installment of the Gears saga.

Has a game helped you out of a rut before? What game from this generation have you played more than any other? Merry Christmas, by the way!

Wednesday, December 21

The Late List

In a time where Dutch is rating the top releases of 2011, I've decided to reminisce about my favorite gaming experiences of the year. Thanks to a new addition to a young family (which thankfully provides entertainment for a very time-poor me) I dont often get to play the newest releases; instead I play what I can, when I can.

Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)
Although its giving me the shits at the moment, Donkey Kong Country spurred hope for the Wii. It's a true platformer, the style that Nintendo is famous for, and while the format is familiar (little has changed from the 90's SNES smash hit) it still provides a solid challenge.

New Super Mario Bros (Wii)
This one hasn't had a great deal of play yet but the chapters I've smashed out have been a world of fun. What the Wii lacks in pixel power, it definitely makes up for in unique controls that make rehashed and re-imagined childhood favorites such as Mario and DK interesting again. Incorporating hand gestures and new moves with twists and shakes of the controller as well as staying true to the franchise has made for some great gaming.

Bejeweled and Hexic (Xbox 360)
I don't know why I liked these but for some reason I was drawn to them for weeks on end. Despite being similar, they are far from new in terms of design or concept (in fact I think Hexic came with the 360 but I never played it). Anyway they've both been addictive and frustrating like any good puzzle game should be.

Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360)
This was my most anticipated game of 2011. Released around the time my son was born, I struggled through sleeplessness to battle the Horde and Remember the Fallen - once I woke at 3am sitting upright on the couch with the controller in my hand and very little happening on screen. In the end I claimed victory, not only with Marcus Fenix and co, but I managed to figure out what the hell was going on with what small amount if information I could retain in my sleep deprived state. The little wins are the best.

Street Fighter IV (iOS)
Picked up for a steal at $1.99, I was dubious at SFIV's translation to the mobile touch screen platform but it proved to be a winner. Far from a talented brawler, I could still manage a number of wins without great difficulty and, even for a button masher, I found the controls to be fluid and responsive with Blanka being my main source of frustration. Get a haircut. Hippy.

Other notable games played this year include COD: Black Ops (x360), Fruit Ninja (iOS), Tap Tap Muppets (iOS), Bulletstorm (x360) and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock (x360).

I'm bummed to have missed out on a few such as MW3, Batman Arkham City, Alice: Madness Returns and Saints Row 3 but let's face it - I'll get to it next year.

High Horse Audit 2011: The Top 5 Games of the Year

Note: This post contains spoilers for Bastion. To see the complete list of games that I've played this year, click here

I've heard a few discussions about 2011 being the best year for gamers since 2007. While I agree that it's been a fantastic year for anyone who dabbles in the playing of videogames, I don't think that we've seen anything quite like the combo of BioShock, The Orange Box, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4 that devastated my social life four years ago. That being said, there were some fantastic games, and whittling this list down to five has been a challenge. 

This year, the indie gaming scene jumped into the spotlight. While I may not have been as dedicated to playing and reviewing these alternatives as some of my contemporaries, I nonetheless discovered that there were quite a few indie offerings that were as polished an experience as that found in your average AAA blockbuster. While I believe there'll always be a place for the heavy hitters in the industry, this year I've learned to ignore smaller projects at my own peril. 

So, without further delay, I present the five best games that I played in 2011.

5. Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony
As much a lesson as it is a game, Jamestown taught me how to play and love shoot 'em ups. By forcing me to work through already-completed levels on higher difficulties so that I could progress, I learned everything from ship (and thus, weapon) selection, through to timing the use of "Vaunts". I also loved the distinctive, pixelated art style and the unparalleled sense of achievement that came with defeating the final boss. There may not have been much of a story, but Final Form Games got me to engage with a genre that I haven't really touched since the arcade release of the original Metal Slug.  


Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony coverage:

4. Super Mario 3D Land
There were times this year where I prided myself on being a contrarian: I didn't have much love for Uncharted 3 or Batman: Arkham City when just about every other writer couldn't get enough of those predictable, though polished titles. I was dead certain that I was going to find fault with Mario's latest adventure, but I was glad to be proven wrong. It may be formulaic, but it's also perfectly suited to gaming on the go. It also serves as a competent showcase for the 3DS' unique visual capabilities. I had a great deal of fun with this iteration, and am still making my way through the progressively devious special levels. I'm under-selling this actually, it's the best platformer that I've played in years. This was a great surprise, in spite of its familiarity. 

 What's old is new again

Super Mario 3D Land coverage:

3. Bastion
The first time I finished Bastion, I cried. I lost my beloved pet Pecker when the Ura invaded the titular sanctuary, and I was presented with my avian companion's shell before I decided the fate of my companions at the game's conclusion. Rucks - the game's narrator and quest giver - tried to console me, but there was no bringing that bird back. This critter didn't have a name, and I didn't really interact with it in any meaningful way, but I felt as though I had failed when the credits rolled. I couldn't protect one of the few well-meaning lifeforms of post-Calamity Caelondia... and it hurt like hell. That's just one of the things I loved about Supergiant Games' first effort. I could go on about the soundtrack (which I still have on rotation), the innovative use of a narrator, the whimsical art style, or the solid Action RPG mechanics,  but you've heard that all before; and not just from me. 

Bastion coverage:

2. Gears of War 3
I'm pretty sure that I've not written about any game (in beta or final form) more than Gears of War 3. I've been a devotee of this series since the first instalment, and have come to love the hulking, foul-mouthed members of Delta squad like family. Distant family maybe, but still, family all the same. The last chapter of their battle against the Locust and Lambent hordes squeezed every last drop out of the Unreal 3 engine, and sets the bar for visuals on the Xbox 360. The third person cover shooting is as tight and enjoyable as ever, and I still go back to the campaign on occasion in the hope of picking up a few more cheevos. The multiplayer is still an addiction for me; though that learning curve for the cut-throat competitive modes can be pretty steep. Even if I only leave it alone for a week, my first few matches are usually characterised by low scores and a great deal of coarse language. I still love it though, and I'll continue to go back for more kills, deaths, and eviscerated torsos. 

 The first rule of Fight Club is...

Gears of War 3 coverage:
1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
If there's been one game that I've been wanting to go back to, ever since I published my review it's Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It took all of my favourite elements from some of the best games released in the last ten years, and fused them into one compelling experience that captured my imagination. I spent hours in Detroit and Hengsha looking for every hidden alleyway, weapons cache and praxis point. I would gleefully reload save after save until even the shortest sequence of play went exactly as I wanted it to. I would agonize over every upgrade and wonder at what could have been. I would complete every side quest, and even test different outcomes to see what suited my interpretation of Adam Jensen the best.

The freedom that I was afforded in my approach to most situations was what had me coming back for a second playthrough. That freedom was also backed by stealth mechanics that actually worked, satisfying gunplay and some memorable chemistry between the lead characters. There may have been a few quirks: awkward NPC movement, some regrettable voice acting and some painful boss fights; but upon reflection, I loved the game because of these quirks, not in spite of them.

Let's not forget about the art direction and cyberpunk narrative that are at the core of this experience either. There are some genuinely-surprising (and thoroughly-predictable) twists in the main story arc, and the ambiguous morality system serves only to add to the intrigue. The issue of augmentation, and the political forces behind it gave off an X-Men-like vibe; and I found myself absorbed in this tale from beginning to end. 

Plus, you have retractable blades in your elbows... if that isn't enough for this to be considered "Game of the Year", then I guess I should just stop writing about them. Deus Ex: Human Revolution simply demands your attention, and it would be remiss for you (or I) to ignore its call. Now excuse me while I get back to my Hard, no alarms, non-lethal playthrough!

See that in the mirror? A winner is you!

Deus Ex: Human Revolution coverage:

What was your favourite game(s) released this year? Do you agree with any of my picks?

Monday, December 19

High Horse Audit 2011: Most Surprisingly Good Game of the Year

Have you ever bought a game without hearing or reading anything about it? I mean nothing, not even a bad review?

That happened for me this year. I picked up a game that I heard absolutely nothing about, and it turns out that I've still played it for longer than any game on a particular system. More on that particular game later, let's go over some other under-appreciated games first.

I've always been a huge fighting game fan, but the Dead or Alive series rarely tickled my fancy. Don't get me wrong, I love scantily-clad girls engaged in combat more than the next man, but the deceptively-deep fighting system has a pretty steep learning curve that I had been unable to master with any other instalment of the series. Through the Chronicle mode, I was introduced to each of the game's mechanics and I could gradually notice some variation in the techniques that I used (for a point of reference, I usually spammed kick combos with Tina in Dead or Alive 2 and 4). When I took the fight online, I felt confident in my abilities and even notched a few wins. If it weren't for the connectivity issues, sound direction and puzzling narrative (that runs throughout Chronicle mode), this would have been a real contender. As it stands, it's a great fighting game in its own right, and one of the best games available on the 3DS.


This wouldn't be a discussion about surprisingly good games without addressing the elephant in the room, Sonic Generations. I've been playing Sonic games since I was six years old, and it's been over ten years since I've been able to play an instalment of the series without enduring physical and/or psychological trauma. The latest iteration thankfully allows players to experience the best of both worlds:  2D levels that handle just as series aficionados would remember them to, and more thoughtfully designed levels with dynamic camera angles like the Sonic of modern ilk. It was far from perfect, but Sonic Generations was so unbelievably good (not great, just above playable) that I was nearly in tears.

Even with well-instructed girl-on-girl action and Sonic's return to form, there was one game that ambushed me with its understated brilliance. The most surprisingly good game of 2011 was Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.

When I pre-ordered my Nintendo 3DS, I could choose between bundles that included either Rayman 3D or this undiscovered, turn-based strategy gem. Thankfully, I went with the unknown and found Shining Force for gun nuts.

To set the scene: apart from knowing it was a launch title (it had to be, it was included in one of the bundles), I knew stuff all about this game. I searched far and wide, and apart from the optimistic musings of an old friend, I had no idea what I was in for.

 More than meets the eye

The presentation may be a bit lacklustre, the narrative mild, and the inclusion of 3D questionable, but Shadow Wars is a great game. It's also the meatiest game on Nintendo's new portable, with a campaign that could easily absorb twenty hours of your time and challenge maps after that. I can remember times where the system's battery gave out without me noticing the red lights (and thus, how much time had passed). Customizable load-outs, different classes, and solid mechanics made for the most addictive and enjoyable game available at the system's launch. It may not have been the best game of the year or even the best on the 3DS, but it's well worth a shot. 

What game(s) surprised you this year?

Sunday, December 18

High Horse Audit 2011: The Shortlist

I've played a lot of games this year, but I haven't played every game that saw release in 2011. I'm publishing this list so you know what was considered for each of the honours that I dish out. There are some games that I missed out on, but still desperately want to play:
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (I have dabbled in splitscreen multiplayer, but that's about it)
  • Battlefield 3
  • Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection
  • God of War: Origins Collection
  • Alice: Madness Returns
  • Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
  • Rayman Origins
  • El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
  • Saints Row: The Third
  • Assassin's Creed: Revelations
Still, I reckon sixty-six games over the course of one year is a respectable effort.

I've already announced my pick for "Most Disappointing Game of the Year", but we've still got the best to get through.  

PlayStation 3
  • Batman: Arkham City
  • LA Noire
  • Dark Souls
  • Mass Effect 2
  • Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
  • Mortal Kombat
  • Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike
  • Portal 2
  • Crysis 2
  • F3AR
  • inFamous 2
  • Stacking
  • Homefront
  • Killzone 3
  • Marvel VS Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
  • deBlob 2
  • Red Faction: Battlegrounds
  • Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition
  • FIFA 12 
  • Dragon Age II  
Xbox 360
  • Duke Nukem Forever
  • Brink
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  • RAGE
  • From Dust
  • Fruit Ninja Kinect
  • Toy Soldiers: Cold War
  • Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
  • Bastion
  • Red Faction: Armageddon
  • Bulletstorm
  • Gears of War 3
Nintendo 3DS
  • Super Mario Bros 3D Land
  • Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
  • Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars
  • Dead or Alive: Dimensions
  • Mario Kart 7
  • Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars
  • Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition
Nintendo DS
  • Pokemon: White Version
  • Sonic Generations
  • Warhammer 40K: Space Marine
  • Dead Island
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution
  • Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony
  • Section 8: Prejudice
  • Capsized
  • Bastion
  • The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings 
  • Jetpack Joyride
  • Steambirds: Survival HD
  • Anomaly Warzone Earth HD
  • Zombie Gunship
  • Tekken Bowl
  • Unpleasant Horse
  • Groove Coaster
  • Snuggle Truck HD
  • Final Fantasy III
Windows Phone 7
  • Full House Poker
  • Angry Birds
  • Fable: Coin Golf
  • Gravity Guy
  • Sonic 4 Episode I
  • Minesweeper
  • Parachute Panic
  • Shuffle Party

Saturday, December 17

Asking The (Far From) Important Questions

Have you ever wondered why characters are who they are? For example why did Mario have to be an Italian plumber with poor English? I know his visual design of the hat and moustache we're due to the basic graphic abilities of the time, so to rationalise his appearance were his characteristics and personality based on racial stereotypes?

Why are soldiers regularly portrayed as arrogant muscle bound jerks? The characters in Gears of War, Bulletstorm and Halo are mountains of men, and let's not forget The King himself, Duke Nukem. He's got muscles on muscles.

Another massive, flexing group are the fighters. Have developers never watched UFC, boxing or any other combat sport? Not all fighters are huge and scrawny Indians and sumo wrestlers aren't the only other size options. And, for reasons other than fueling the imagination of 14 year old boys, why are all the women scantily dressed and heavy breasted? I challenge you to find a real life female fighter that looks like Chun-Li, Cammy or Kitana. Wait, was she the hot one or the one with the demon mouth? If she's the demon one I meant the hot one.

With impending holidays I'm bound to hit the controller again soon for a pixel fix and stop my mind from wandering. Have you ever asked questions about your favorite games? I'd like to hear them.

Wednesday, December 14

High Horse Audit 2011: Most Disappointing Game of the Year

There's an obvious nominee for this award, but it won't walk away with the prize. Yes, Duke Nukem Forever was horrible. It took more than a decade to see release, but it failed to "disappoint." No-one at Gearbox Software leapt forth to scream the virtues of the "return of the king." This game was spruiked solely on the novelty that the game would in fact be released. Despite my initial optimism, I wasn't overly confident of a strong showing.

 Disappointment came from the over-hyped, overrated games that simply failed to live up to their developers' promises (or abjectly failed to meet my expectations). L.A Noire falls into this category, as I often assume anything with a Rockstar logo is a guaranteed winner. It was an un-game, that refused to let me play. Sure, there were gamified elements, but they all fell flat. For example (SPOILER): in the fourth case, it's bleedingly obvious that there was a racial motivation for the crime; you just can't raise that point in questioning until the game wants you too (END SPOILER). Arbitrary driving and combat only added to the tedium. This was a horrible "game," but it was by no means the most disappointing release of the year.

The unjustifiably and universally acclaimed Dark Souls also failed to sell me on From Software's punitive brand of Action RPG hell. If it weren't so brutally difficult, it would have been written off as "ugly," "awkward," and accused of containing a shallow story. Force gamers to endure anxiety and frustration, and suddenly it's "memorable," "riveting," and "inviting" (Gamespot). By comparison, Lost Planet 2 was also excruciatingly difficult and likewise, had little in the way of checkpoints or most other standards of modern game design and it's "broken, tedious" and "downright frustrating" (Gamespot - for the record, I chose this outlet because it is one of the strongest advocates of Dark Souls while being a fierce critic of Lost Planet 2). Such a curious double standard in games journalism, wouldn't you agree? Still, we're not quite there.

Before I put you all out of your collective misery, I need to clarify something: disappointing doesn't mean bad. I broke my brother's heart last year when I said Mass Effect 2 was more underwhelming than any other game from 2010's extensive release list. I don't want to enrage anyone, but you must know that good games can fail to deliver on the promises of developers, game journalists, and your peers.

The most disappointing game of 2011 was Batman: Arkham City. 

Batman: Arkham Asylum was nothing short of a revelation. It may not have been the best game of 2009, but it was - and still is - the best superhero game released in recent memory. I expected a lot from a sequel, and the early reviews only served to feed the fires of hype; matter of fact, the game is now second only to Grand Theft Auto IV in terms of metascore on the PlayStation 3 (Metacritic).

While it was a solid (I may have even used the word, great) game, Arkham City failed to meet or exceed expectations.

First of all, some of my favourite villains were mishandled by the developer. Two Face was a generic gangster with none of the mystique he displayed in my favourite Bat Books. Penguin - voiced by the literal everyman, Nolan North - was equally forgettable and unlikeable. Even some of the heroes were misappropriated. Take the regrettably silent Nightwing for example. Upon reflection, with the exception of the rousing score, the sound design was pretty repetitive too. Being treated to the same thug diatribes as I glided around the city became somewhat grating, and felt like a poor replacement for the hustle and bustle of life found in the Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto titles.

There was also the issue of control. More gadgets were added to an already expansive arsenal, and navigating with the d-pad was pretty unresponsive. This was particularly frustrating during sequences - such as the boss fight against Mr Freeze - where a little precision was required. You could also use some of the more offensive items in a "Quickfire" capacity during combat, but that turned a simple rhythmic dance into a button-mashing farce. Towards the end, I was flipping around thugs dropping explosive gel everywhere; no skill required. Worst of all, the tension-filled boss fights of Arkham Asylum were dumped in favour of visually-impressive - though deceptively-simple encounters - with villains that felt thrown-in to the already twisted narrative.

Should've packed more gel...

The optional nature of open world games also came into conflict with the Batman I know from comic books. The Caped Crusader wouldn't allow any evil to go unpunished in print, so why am I allowed to pick and choose who I bring to justice? This was a game that would have benefited from the reins being tightened.

Rocksteady tried to shoehorn too many characters into the adventure, and the resulting lack of focus made for a clumsy main story arc. When the credits started rolling after the anti-climactic, final boss fight, I was gutted. "What? What? This can't be it?" I wailed. All of the momentum that the narrative picked up was crudely killed off with an ending cinematic that was typical of fighting games during the late nineties.  

Arkham City went with the quantity over quality approach. There may have been more to do, but the game delivered fewer memorable moments, less responsive controls (when translated to the "open world" setting), and pretty, yet simple boss fights. Like I said in my review, the game is bigger, bolder, but not necessarily better than its predecessor.

Batman: Arkham City coverage:

Monday, December 12

Super Mario 3D Land Review (3DS): Change is overrated

When I was about eight years old, my best friend got his hands on a Nintendo Entertainment System and a modest collection of games. While each game - no matter how good or bad it was - kept us somewhat entertained, nothing quite stole my attention like Super Mario Bros. 3. It was easily the best looking of the games he'd inherited, and I'd always insist we play that rather than any other title on hand. Throughout the years, I've enjoyed many Mario titles; but none quite so much as the third instalment. Can the addition of the third dimension knock the king off its perch?

The Good
A requir3d space - The third dimension defines Super Mario 3D Land and does what no other release on the console has managed so far: make playing in 3D desirable, if not essential. Sure, the game can be played in 2D, but you'll potentially be handicapping yourself. It's also worth mentioning that the game is rendered with the series' trademark colour and character. Truly amazing to behold.

Fun distilled - If there's one thing I can't stand, it's having to suspend play when the momentum is in my favour. The levels in Super Mario 3D Land are short and paced expertly; perfect for gaming on the go. The 3DS circle pad also allows for precise movement, while touch screen gimmickry is kept to an absolute minimum. Easily the most enjoyable Mario title in years.

Double espresso - A playthrough of Super Mario 3D Land's eight worlds will take about four hours, but that's only the beginning. I'll try not to spoil anything, but you'll be able to find genuine challenge in unlockable special levels, while the desire to collect every Star Coin adds a great deal of replay value.

 I can already see one reason to go back.

The Bad
Don't go changing - If you're a Mario evangelist, this is a non-issue, but it still needs to be said: Super Mario 3D Land brings nothing new to the table. Save for some short, sharp level design and the Boomerang Flower, you'll get the feeling that you've been here before. As I missed out on New Super Mario Bros Wii, this wasn't a huge issue for me; but I can't help but feel that this will affect some players.

The Ugly
John Stockton Syndrome - The new "Assist Blocks" eliminate whatever challenge is left from a reasonably-easy game (special levels excepted). I never did badly enough to "earn" a P-Wing, but the Invincibility Leaf is a free license to walk through any boss fight and most obstacles unchecked. When you can finish a game (again, special levels excepted) with a hundred lives to spare, the last thing you need is a helping hand.

 Drinketh not from these poison chalices!

The Verdict
Despite an almost complete lack of anything genuinely new, Super Mario 3D Land is easily one of the most enjoyable games that I've played this year. Its vibrant visuals, fluid controls, portable-suited level design, and an essential new dimension make this an essential experience. While not exactly a reason to rush out and buy a 3DS, that overwhelming sense of buyer's remorse I had is slowly starting to fade.  

Sunday, December 11

To my wife (to my muse, to my editor, to my best friend) on our Anniversary

Dear Carly,  

This day last year was the best day of my life. The intermittently-rainy day when we were married in front of our family and friends will always be ingrained in memory. I was a bit nervous when you didn’t proceed down the aisle at the advertised start time, but I knew you wouldn’t keep me waiting too long.

I’ll never forget the relief; the large lump that I swallowed when I saw you at the door. You looked beautiful, and a little bit more bronzed than you did earlier in the week. I can remember my smile: unrelenting, unwavering. I could feel nothing – not even the broken toenail that I’d smashed in a game of drunken mega chess the previous evening – but happiness. 

I can remember our first dance as a married couple. My word, did that get silly quickly. As I swung you around in circles, I can remember thinking "Please don't trip over. PLEASE don't trip over." I still don't know if I was thinking about me or you, but it's a miracle that no one was hurt or embarrassed.  It did set a good tone for the evening ahead though, and I'd do it again.

I’ll never forget the lazy, cold nights we spent in Dayslesford or Melbourne either. The seemingly-endless run of visits to Minotaur, Myer and Chocolate Buddha hinted at the beginnings of a perfect union. You never tired of my routine (food-comics-food-comics-cider-comics-food), if anything you seemed to enjoy it. 

The return home wasn’t easy. Don’t get me wrong: I know we couldn’t have sustained a year of binging in our favourite city, but it would have been nice. Am I right? I was still unhappy at work – my unfulfilling occupation demanded even more of my time – but I knew I could return to you and bask in the novelty of calling you “my wife.” Throughout all of the challenges that we've faced this year, that was one thing I could always do if I was feeling down.  

You still support me, even in spite - or possibly because - of my non-committal responses to life's big challenges. Mortgage? "I'd rather travel." Kids? "Do dogs count as kids?" Car? "I can't even drive." Job? "Actually, my wife (teehee) is the breadwinner." Even when I did try and venture from my comfort zone, you stood with me (or at least dropped me off at the train station). 

Not that 2011 has been all doom and gloom, mind you. We both ventured into a foreign land for the first time and had an absolute ball of a time indulging in cheap whiskey, cheaper (most of the time) food, and more shopping than could normally be recommended for a couple considering the purchase of a house. Back on home soil, we also had many breakfast/lunch/dinner dates with generous helpings of coffee/alcohol (depending on the time of the day). My favourite nights, however, involved lounging around on the couch watching Japanese game shows alone with you (I triple dare anyone to find a more compelling game show than Ninja Warrior).   

One year on , and I'm still as in love (if not more) with you than I was as I waited for you at the makeshift altar; wearing clothes that I'd only sourced the day before, hands fidgeting, wondering what the future would hold (read: when would you appear). I'm so glad we decided to conform to the social norm that is marriage. My life has been all the better for it. 
Still never been happier than I was in this picture.
Here's to a hundred more years together. If there are to be any more than that, Science will finally have delivered the invincibility, super strength and adamantium claws that I've always wanted. 

I love you. 



For Science!

Thursday, December 8

Retraction: The box has it wrong, and so do I

Earlier this week I published a post titled "The box has it (or how Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary broke my heart)," where I claimed that the game in question did not support 4 player splitscreen multiplayer. This claim was based on the back of the box art which states that Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary supports:
  • Players 1-2
  • Co-op 2
  • System Link 2-16
I made an assumption, and I was wrong. I would first like to apologise to the developer, 343 Industries for my mistake. I made an unfair representation of their game which they have put a great deal of effort into.  Secondly, I would like to apologise to the editors at Bitmob for the mistake I had written into my post which was later promoted and received many more hits than it deserved. Finally, I would like to apologise to any readers for the misinformation. I hope that my error does not influence your decision to purchase this game.

I will assure that the anecdote which was the heart of the post is a true story, perhaps altered by some rose-tinted glasses. I'm glad that I now have the chance to play my brothers in 3 player splitscreen multiplayer.

To conclude, I'd like to refer to the coarsely-named blog, Game Journalists are Incompetent Fuckwits. Sometimes the author can be a little blunt, but I agree with the broader message that he puts forward. Game journalism deserves better than writers who refuse to be transparent and accountable for what they write. I'm not a professional game journalist (some day I would truly love to be), but I would like to see greater standards placed on the industry.

Once again, please accept my sincere apologies. Rest-assured: next time I make an assertion about a game, I'll confirm it before I post.



Wednesday, December 7

Microsoft's Brand New Bag

Over the past couple of days Microsoft has been rolling out a new dashboard and interface for the Xbox 360. This new interface is more than just an easy way of navigating the system, it's an intuitive and complete entertainment package...that I don't really care for.

Before I get into why I don't particularly care for the upgrade, I'll be fair and do a compliment sandwich; something positive, followed by the negative and then closed with a positive. It could be a management technique but I saw it on Family Guy and Stewie makes me giggle.

Firstly, the good - it does have some cool features like voice recognition and activiation with the use of Kinect (untested due to no Kinect), more social media integration with Facebook, Twitter and other apps, as well as simple menus with large square icons. I also like the crispness of the 'floating' menu tabs at the top of the screen and how the items within each tab have been prioritised and placed on the page.

It's crisp to look at and consistent for all you obsessive compulsives like me

Now for the triple layer of non-caring, cheese covered filling. Why do we need yet another look and feel change? What was wrong with the old one? Why do I have to look at ridiculous pictures of people having fun to realise I'm about to have fun myself? Are they there as a distraction to the inane amount of menus I'm going through to perform simple tasks such as watch a movie or download a demo? So many questions, not enough time.

Look at me! I'm on the couch just like you. I'm having so much fun and I'm just reminding you that you are also having fun. My hand is saying stop but really I'm just interacting with my new dashboard. Oh the fun!
The next layer of dissatisfaction relates to the avatar. The Xbox is not a Wii, nor is it a DS or Leapfrog learning play centre thing that little children learn to read on. It's a game system for adults, so why am I having to create avatars for whatever account I'm signing into? Gaming isn't just for kids. Let me be an adult and let me feel like an adult while I'm playing games. Get rid of the avatars!

VandyFan? Not a fan. Go away.

The sour condiment of frustration is the jumpy menu design. While it looks alright on the main menu, moving past the parameters of any given page means you are going to a new tab ie moving from Home to Social to TV etc. This means any jerkiness between menu items is not noticed as it's a natural separation device.

When you delve deeper into the menus, for example when you are looking for demos, the large number of games requires movement through pages but the designers have opted for a jerky search experience, allowing four or five items to a page then an abrupt jerk as you transition to a new page and more items. If you had 25 new release games to search through, that's five pages or more of jerky movements. The previous system was smooth and flowing; these changes seem like a backwards step to me.

Ending on a positive note, the download was quite painless, taking less than five minutes over ADSL1 wifi. I remember starting it, flicking over to the TV, then the system reset and all was finished.

Have you downloaded the new look interface yet? What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, December 6

The box has it (or how Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary broke my heart)

Bitmob’s Kyle Russell and Rus McLaughlin have covered this already, but the omission of certain features – most notably, four player split-screen multiplayer – from Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is nothing short of a travesty. Not only is it lazy on the developer’s part, but it also means that I’ve been robbed of the chance to player the game against my brothers.... again. Only this time, it’s for an entirely different reason; and one of which I have absolutely no ability to correct. 

It was 2003. My little brother had purchased an Xbox bundle which included both Halo and Top Spin. In those days, I was a PlayStation fanboy, so this purchase incensed me to no end. That is, of course, until I played through the game-changing campaign with my sibling. We then proceeded to fight each other afterwards, in the game’s splitscreen competitive mode. Usually, when in conflict with each other, things get heated; even violent. This time it was different, however: I was happy to fly off in a Banshee while he attempted to clip my wings with any gun he could get his hands on. I was happy for Reuben to run me over, and then desecrate my corpse. 

And soon, Beau would be home for Christmas. 

Beau is my older brother: my more successful, infinitely-more sociable sibling who had turned his back on videogames for a life of policy-making in federal politics. If there was one thing that could bring him back to the fold, it was Halo. I was sure of it.     

Reuben and I continued to work in the lead-up to Christmas, with Beau arriving late Christmas Eve. Fragging would have to wait, we would need to visit relatives and other things that families do when the unit is brought together. My older brother’s return to Nerdvana would be invariably delayed. 

Finally, we managed to trap Beau in front of the TV late on Christmas night. We loaded the game with what we thought was our secret weapon. There was only one problem: we only had two controls. How did this not occur to us until right then? I felt so stupid. 

“No worries,” I said. “We’ll rent one from a video store.” So then we drove to pretty much every video rental outlet in North Brisbane. Every transaction worked exactly the same: we engaged in small talk, we bought junk food, our expressions sunk when we heard “Sorry, we don’t rent controllers for the Xbox.” 

 O Brother, where art thou?

After arriving back home and still licking our wounds, we resolved to play the game regardless; with the winner keeping a controller. It was great: we laughed, we cried, we died repeatedly. Beau would escape to a life of international travel, marathon meetings and a seemingly endless run of nights that ended in trendy bars. Reuben and I still engage in a daily ritual of fragging, teabagging and griefing. 

This Christmas, Beau returns home from Thailand, and the Damen brothers will reunite with a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved. Again, we’ll take turns at splitscreen multiplayer, with no ability to accommodate the three of us at once. Most of the video stores we visited are out of business now, but there’s still a need for junk food and small talk. 

What are your favourite Halo memories? Did Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary disappoint you without even opening the box?

Sunday, December 4

Letter from a concerned resident of the Mushroom Kingdom

Dear Esteemed Members of the Mushroom Court,

Am I the only who's had enough? Our beloved Princess Peach has been kidnapped for what seems like the hundredth time over a two decade period. I'm not usually one to question how our taxes are spent, but maybe we should consider investing in police, armed forces, or - at the very least - a private security detail for Her Royal Highness?

I think there's no arguing that the Treasury's investment in golf courses and world-class kart racing facilities may have brought us increased prosperity (well, it did when the exchange rates were good), but there's an obvious cost to ignoring issues like homeland security.  We all now live with the expectation that our leaders are to be held to ransom at a moment's notice, as well as being fair game for kidnapping and extortion. 

With that being said, how the hell is Bowser not behind bars? Last time I checked, kidnapping was a crime in this kingdom. Well, even so, it's not like we have anyone to enforce the law around here. For a start, most of us are about half the height of your average plumber; and those guys usually aren't tall enough to play on a kids' basketball team. Then there's the fashion: these ridiculous toadstool hats - that have somehow become part of our standard daily dress - don't exactly scream scary. Lastly, there's our work ethic that's holding us back: Instead of banding together to rescue our future queen, we enlist the help of some violent Italian mercenary to get her back.

Don't get me wrong: I know Mario's done a lot for us, but he has so much blood on his hands. This guy is damaged goods, and just how many Koopa Troopas and Goombas have to die before someone calls this genocide? Let's go after the source of the problem here; these guys are just following orders.... badly. I mean, I've heard that Bowser's been genetically modifying these guys with Tanooki DNA, but they're still dropping like flies.

Bowser's methods of torturing the plumber are only becoming more elaborate, too. He's sending the poor guy 3D photographs of our princess in distress. He is one sick freak, and it's no surprise that Mario has taken to skinning Tanookis and eating shrooms in his efforts to get our matriarch back on home soil.

It was always going to end up like this

Feeding this one man army is also costing us a lot of coin. Seriously, we just leave our money lying around so that he can pay to cheat death again. We're also coughing up Star Coins so that no stone is left unturned in the search for Princess Peach. Before long, all that money we've earned through hosting premiere sporting tournaments will be wasted on one man's violent - and perhaps - failed campaign.

"Enough!" I say. Let's scrape some of that coin together and enlist the help of Blackwater, or some other guns-for-hire. They've got experience with motion controls too; so they'll feel right at home on our pristine beaches, floating castles, and haunted houses.

Yours in deepest care and concern,

A worried citizen

Saturday, December 3

On the Brink of insanity

Just a quick tip: Brink is going for a song on Steam this weekend. You can grab the game and all DLC for 7 US dollars. With the current exchange rate, that is just shy of insanity! On the brink, even.

If you're on the fence, you can even trial the full product game at no cost over the course of the weekend. It's by no means perfect, but it's easily worth seven bucks.

Don't miss your shot at a bargain!

Animated Antics

As the year draws to a close, so do many of the great TV shows (yes I realize this is a gaming blog). The one I'm thinking of specifically is The Ultimate Fighter.

For those uninitiated just think the Big Brother house but filled with mixed martial artists who fight weekly for the chance to win a six figure UFC contract. Unlike Big Brother though, it's both entertaining and watchable.

Anyway I just watched the last semi final fight and couldn't help but think a muscular, shaved and Brazilian Mario was in the octagon.

The way he threw a couple of flying knees looked like he was doing Mario's signature jump. His wild punches were just missing a certain flower inspired flame and his speed to get to his downed opponent would've crossed any gap in the Mario universe.

The fight was like something you might see on Super Smash Bros, with his opponent resembling a lightly bearded Princess Peach, resulting in the ultimate role reversal - rather than constantly saving Peach, Mario just sent her to the hospital.

I associate his opponent to Peach not due to any feminine features but because of the way he would spin like a girl every time he attempted to block or even take Mario's beast like attacks.

This season (14) was one of the best and highly recommend it if you decide to put down the controller. It might even help you get inspired for UFC Undisputed 3 which is slated for release in February (and features Australia's own George Sotiropoulos!). Don't watch season 13 though; it was shit house at best.

I'm clearly not playing games at the moment, what are you doing?